On January 2, 2009 when I landed in India, to spend three months teaching English in a slum of New Delhi I had no idea what to expect. During that time, I grew to both love and struggle with India. I found everything to be a contradiction: the extreme, in-your-face poverty contrasted with a country with the fastest growing population of billionaires; the inner peace individuals found despite living in a chaotic city; the success and value placed on the tech-industry despite the fact India has not properly invested in sanitation, causing 665 million people to be public defecators.
Recently, a study conducted by TrustLaw Women, an online legal news service run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, called India the fourth most dangerous country for women in the world, preceded by Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Pakistan.
TrustLaw Women asked 213 gender experts to rank countries according to six risks: sexual violence, non-sexual violence, cultural or religious factors, discrimination and lack of access to resources, and trafficking.
The numbers from India are overwhelming: 100 million women and girls are involved in trafficking, 44.5% of Indian girls are married before they are 18, and 50 million women have gone “missing” as a result of female infanticide.
These statistics prove that much of India, regardless of caste, views women as second-class citizens, less valuable than their brothers, fathers, and husbands. Much of this belief comes from various cultural practices. For example, because a daughter moves to live with her husband’s family after they marry and therefore does not have the responsibility of caring for her parents, many Indian families do not view their daughters as their own: she’s an investment with no return. As a result, some families are willing to abort a girl child, refuse to invest in her education or healthcare, or even to sell her into slavery for a small fee.
Anu Ahuja, a native of India but a MD resident, finds these statistics sad and surprising. Now India is not being considered a developing country,” she said. “When you watch a Bollywood movie it’s surprising to see how Americanized its become based on the clothing the heroines are wearing. So you hear that India is progressing not just technologically or economically but in its thinking, but then you hear about reports of girls being starved in orphanages which is depressing because wanting a son is so engrained in the culture. “
Indeed, many of these statistics are personal to me after my time in India. For example, despite it being illegal to get married before 18, I had a 12-year-old student whose parents arranged her marriage to a 30-year-old man. When the wedding occurred, nobody in the community spoke up out of fear, and, probably because, many of them were going to make similar choices for their daughters. She came back to school a few days after the wedding in tears.
However, the contradiction that is India also makes me see another reality. Despite the horrors many Indian families inflict on their daughters, Indians do not seem afraid to elect women. India currently has a female president, Pratibha Patil. In 1966, India elected its first female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and currently, her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, is the President of the Indian National Congress, the political party of the current Prime Minister. And in 1937, when American women were legally barred from many workplaces, Ms. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was appointed Uttar Pradesh’s Minister for Health and then appointed to be a delegate to the United Nations.
Ms. Bela Singh, India Country Director for Cross Cultural Solutions, an organization that places volunteers in economically developing countries for short-term volunteering positions, emphasizes the situation for women in India is not black and white; “I am a common women but I don’t feel threatened,” she said. “Statistics don’t do justice in my opinion…Reality can not be seen from outside. One should look within first to claim India is the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women.”
Ms. Singh represents the growing population of middle class women in India. According to research conducted by Deutsche Bank, there are up to 300 million Indians living in the middle class. To put this number in perspective, that is nearly the total population of the United States but only about 30 percent of the Indian population. Nevertheless, these individuals, specifically the girls, are gaining access to resources, knowledge, and opportunities that were unheard of for their mothers.
I find this contradiction to be one of the most fascinating within India. Each India, the child bride and the female president, is just as real as the other. They coexist in the same chaotic way as other national contradictions. But this contradiction, of systematically destroying the opportunities for and well-being of half of the population, is unsustainable. If I could, I would add a footnote to TrustLaw’s study. I would say India is the fourth most dangerous country for many Indian women. For the rest, these realities are as foreign as they are to us.
Photo Credit: Erin Williamson, 2009